When I made my first trip to Poland in October 1998, I wanted to see the death camps and the gas chambers. Before I left on my trip, I made arrangements for a tour guide through a company in New York City. I wanted to make sure that I had a guide who spoke English. Before taking me to see the camps, my guide told me that I had to first see a shetetl so I could see what it was like for the Jews who were living in Eastern Europe during World War II. I couldn’t even pronounce the word shetetl and I didn’t understand why I had to waste time seeing a village where Jews no longer lived.
Many of the houses in Tykocin look like barns, with what appears to be a hayloft in the attic space, but you can tell they are dwellings because they are right next to the sidewalk and have curtains in the windows.
The German name for the shtetel Jews was Dorfjuden, or village Jews in English. A few of these villages had a population that was 100% Jewish, but in most of them, the Jews lived side by side with the Polish Catholics. The town of Tykocin was divided down the middle into the Jewish district on the west side and the Christian district on the east side.
The weathered gray wooden house shown at the top of this page appears to have shutters on the two doors which are closed and barred. On the top of the house is a window which looks like an opening into a hayloft. To prove that these buildings are not barns, I took a picture of a barn in the back yard of the house, which is shown in the photo below.
If these barn-like houses look familiar, it may be because you have seen houses just like them in the movie Fiddler on the Roof.
When these houses were last inhabited by shtetel Jews, most of them did not have indoor plumbing. According to historian Martin Gilbert, there were whole villages in Poland, as late as 1945, that did not have running water, indoor toilets or a sewer system. There was no industry in Tykocin then and, according to my tour guide, the inhabitants were engaged in farming, including the Jews.
After Poland was partitioned for the third time in 1795, Tykocin was located in the section that came under the control of Russia. Between 1835 and 1917, Tykocin was included in the Pale of Settlement, the reservation where the Jews were forced to live by decree of Russian Czar Nicholas I. The movie Fiddler on the Roof depicts the life of the Jews in the Pale and ends with the start of their expulsion in 1881 after the assassination of Czar Nicholas I during the revolutionary activity, that was just beginning, which finally culminated in the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II by the Communists in 1917.
Two million Jews were expelled from the Russian sector of the former country of Poland between 1881 and the start of World War I in 1914. Most of the Jews from the Pale of Settlement came to America, but some settled in Germany or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1917, some of the Jews from the Pale of Settlement, who had emigrated to America, returned to fight in the Communist Revolution.
In October 1998, when I visited the Auschwitz II camp, aka Birkenau, it was a rainy day and I was not able to take as many photos as I wanted to take. When I told my Jewish tour guide that I wanted to come back at a later date, so I could take more photos, she said, “Don’t come during the March of the Living.” When I asked why, she said that the March of the Living was held once a year to celebrate the victory of the Jews over the Nazis and it was not safe for a person, like me, who looked German, to be in Auschwitz at that time. (The guide appeared to be Jewish, but she claimed that she was not a Jew because, as I learned when she was verbally attacked in Krakow, Poland was not safe for Jews in 1998.)
This morning, I was reading about three Auschwitz survivors, who now live in South Florida. They were on this year’s March of the Living. You can read the article here and see a video about their trip here. The March of the Living also goes to the Maidanek (Majdanek) camp, where the people on the march can see gas chambers and a reconstructed crematorium.
What impressed me about the story of the three Auschwitz survivors on the March of the Living is how lucky they were to have survived their ordeal in a death camp and to have been able to come to America where they could live the good life.
This quote is from the news article:
As the trio travels back to Auschwitz in Poland, each tells a terrifying story about being ripped from their homes and loaded onto crowded trains, with no idea where they were going or what would happen to them once they arrived.
Standing on the train platform at the Birkenau extermination camp, part of Auschwitz, Mermelstein remember the being greeted by the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele, the man who performed cruel medical experiments on children and adults being held by the Nazis. “He looked at you, had on white gloves and a little stick and just motioned right or left.” Mermelstein is explaining what became known as “the selection process.” In that split second, people where chosen for life or immediate death in the gas chamber. No one realized at the time what was happening. “The people went to right went this way, people who went to left, right behind the fence there, there’s a walk way, they walked about a half a mile to where the gas chambers,” recalls Mermelstein.
The photos below show some of the survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the people who were sent to the right during the selection process, and they survived.